It was May, pandemic lockdown, and we had two choices: cancel IoT@Siemens, or go virtual with just four weeks lead time.
Back in February 2020 we had just completed planning our annual IoT@Siemens internal conference for March to discuss the latest developments in IoT. Around 200 people from all over Germany and from abroad were going to come to Nuremberg. The agenda was set, keynote speakers booked, hotels reserved – all looked good to go. Then, as you all know, the COVID-19 lockdown happened. We – as many other companies and organizations around that time – had to cancel our event. Optimistically, we postponed it to June.
Soon it became clear that an in-person event didn’t look feasible in June either. Still, our team’s highly motivated, creative and eager-to-try-out-new-things enthusiasts didn’t want to cancel our annual conference completely, part of a series which started in 2009. Innovative developments and products in the IoT-realm are just too exciting and relevant for Siemens not to take the opportunity to meet and discuss all that is new, e.g. Edge Computing or IoT application projects. So, in May, we decided to organize our IoT-conference as an online event and it turned out to be a success – despite just a mere four weeks preparation time – with several lessons and best practices learned.
Each day with a special focus
First, we had to make sure that our most important participants would be available for live, virtual presentations. Our keynote speakers were Helmut Macht former CTO of Siemens Building Technologies, Co-CEO and CTO of Bosch.IO Stefan Ferber, head of Azure Industrial IoT at Microsoft Erich Barnstedt, and Marc Bengulescu and Filip Široký from CERN. No problem.
We also asked our other speakers, and they were also available. Everybody understood that in times of a pandemic, there is no usual way of doing things, and under the circumstances this is the best we can do. Also, quite a few appreciated not having to travel and the upside of not having to travel became clear quickly as more people are able to attend. In the end, we had 600 participants, instead of just 200.
It was clear that keeping the old two-day agenda wouldn’t work and that we needed to come up with something new. People logging in from their home offices would not sit for eight hours a day straight in front of their screens – they would rather integrate the conference into their daily work.
Instead of two as originally planned we decided on four days. So IoT@Siemens became IoT@Siemens Week. No one had to spend all four days with us as we decided to give each day a special focus: ‘Edge Computing and Smart Field Devices’, ‘Industrial IoT Platforms and Use Cases’, ‘Connectivity and Data’ and ‘Multicore and Distributed Computing’ – all hot areas in IoT right now. People could choose between joining the keynote of the day in the morning, live session with the speakers after lunch, and/or live demo sessions at the end of the day. The problem of attending one talk while missing another one which happens simultaneously, did not occur.
Next we had to decide on technology. With little time remaining we wanted to keep things simple – that’s the main reason why we did not decide on rather sophisticated platforms such as inXpo Intrado, which appeared to offer a close to full-fledged virtual conference experience. For the live events – such as our four keynote speeches in the morning – we stuck with an in-house solution and with some preparation, it was perfectly able to handle large groups of up to 1000. Another advantage it has is that it’s all browser-based, meaning it was very easy to use for attendees using various operating systems.
33 technical talks – mainly, but not only from various Siemens-R&D-departments e.g. at Corporate Technology, Digital Industries, or Mobility – were prerecorded, put on internal Siemens’ video platform, and their links were sent out a week beforehand. Our presenters were also given a tutorial of how to produce a talk. For example, for software architect Miriam Schleipen it turned out to be a rather fun challenge to build a Lego factory presenting new automation solutions with the help of her children.
Live sessions with the speakers
We asked presenters to keep it short – around 10-15 minutes – unlike the 30-45 minutes they were allotted originally at the live event, simply because then people are more likely to watch it. For the speakers, this worked out perfectly; now they also have these talks which they can use for other purposes. In the same vein, we think that going forward prerecorded talks could be helpful to cover basics of a certain topic. That could help someone new to a certain technical area.
Also, having watched talks beforehand also allowed attendees to ask more thoughtful questions during the live “Meet the Speakers” panels after lunch. The questions were being asked via a chat. One thing really helped: our moderators were very well-prepared. And after the event, as we heard, several attendees contacted speakers with further questions or project ideas. The feedback we got was great overall.
But what about mingling with colleagues?
For the live Virtual Demo Booths from 4pm to 5pm we had to ensure that our colleagues could access their offices safely. Others could do their demo at home. One example involved a setup which sorted marbles by color in real time. Many of these demos had a casual and light tone, not unlike on a televised home shopping channel.
Still, not everything is perfect in this virtual universe. Keynote speakers certainly lacked a live audience. Unless you work for TV, you´re not used to that – and there was no apparent way of solving this issue. In the future, though, we assume that platforms will find solutions for that. Another open question are time zones – how can we ensure that experts from the Americas, Asia, Europe, Africa and Australia can all benefit from a conference equally? Should certain sessions be repeated? And finally, a key reason to attend conference in person is the simple mingling with colleagues – at lunch, at dinner or afterwards at a bar. Informal face-to-face contacts are highly important, but hard to reproduce during a virtual event.
Going forward, a hybrid approach
Going ahead, even once the pandemic is over, we assume that conferences will never be the same again, but rather feature a hybrid approach combining the best of both worlds – having face-to-face meetings, but also allowing people who cannot travel to take part virtually.
Even though we managed with the tools we had, standard tools like ours should be developed to emphasize interactive features. These tools or platforms in turn have to become a standard everybody feels comfortable with. But with just four weeks preparation time, we are happy with the result of IoT@Siemens Week. Without our orga team it certainly would not have been such success. Our colleagues and co-workers are clearly open to new formats.